How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the USMNT
In the aftermath of the greatest World Cup tournaments of all-time, just weeks after Brazil’s unfathomable decimation, I can’t help but revisit one of the most tense moments in my life as a United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) supporter. When the draw was first announced, America was placed in the “group of death.” I predicted that we would advance from the group despite having to deal with the greatest individual player, the greatest European side, and the greatest African side—- all at once.
The premiere group stage match for USMNT this cup was with our arch-nemesis Ghana. The Black Stars. My entire adult life I have been torn as an African-American soccer enthusiast because of our past with the Black Stars. A part of me wanted to see them azonto all over the pitch. They were after all, the first Sub-Saharan African nation to escape the bonds of colonialism. The very name of the former Gold Coast is borrowed from the first great West African nation state. I often feel a sense of pride watching the European leagues and seeing some of my favorite players—Acquah, Atsu, Appiah, Ayew, Asamah— shine in the face of discrimination on the pitch and racial abuse from the stands at times. How could I not cheer for Ghana? How could I not support the Black Stars?
But then again…how COULD I? In the 2006 and 2010 World Cups it was the tiny West African nation that eliminated the USMNT from competition. The USMNT fan boy in me legitimizes my feud with Ghana from that time with my Pan-Africanist notions by pointing out how hopelessly corrupt the Ghanaian Football Federation is. I did not hesitate in ridiculing them on social media and expressing my distaste for their confidence going into the match. To me it was not just a matter of national pride but a rather personal goal that we should prove ourselves against Ghana. I hoped that the Jurgen Klinsmann era would be ushered in with a decisive victory in which we showed ourselves to be a greatly improved national side.
It was peculiar to me then that so many African-Americans watching the last World Cup actively cheered against the United States in favor of Ghana. It hit me as doubly odd that many of these people wore their soccer anti-Americanism as a sort of badge of honor; one that showed that they were really down with the cause, that they were legitimate radicals. When faced with what I saw to be faux-radicalism from people who did not know the sport well, I believed that it would be a more radical stance to support America in spite of its unpaid debt to black labor and black life. It would be more radical to approach this match with a forgiving soul, embracing the rainbow nation ideology of a recently passed elder radical Nelson Mandela or of the classic American revolutionary, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The anti-American faction rooting for Ghana often echoed to me the words of Frederick Douglass. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” The only problem was that Douglass himself lived in a state of cognitive dissonance with respect to that notion. We can’t forget all of the work that Frederick Douglass did on behalf of our people to position us to receive the first-class American citizenship that we deserved. I think about Douglass’s insistence on black troops being involved in the Union war effort. He was as patriotic an American as there was at the time, even while acknowledging its deep and terrible, terrible scars. If HE a formerly enslaved man, could at least cope with America’s wrongs (but not forget) and look to force his way as a part of it then surely my compatriots could as well.
One thing that I tried to stress was that our citizenship was not only deserved but EARNED. The wealth of America was largely produced on the backs of black people. The monuments we hold dear, our oldest cities, even the very White House in which President Obama and the first family reside was made possible by black labor. I take great pride in calling myself an American at home and abroad. I will not allow white supremacists or any type of racist forces to strip me of the identity, gifts, and privileges which my ancestors struggled to leave to me. We played such an important role in building this great nation as workers, surveyors, scientists, soldiers, and statesmen. Why turn our backs on it now, so many generations deep into the struggle for equality? Black Americans have been here since 1619 and we won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. We will stand as Tim Howard stood, blocking a barrage of bigotry against who we should be or who we are. We may not always get a clean sheet, but we should still be proud of who we are.
That’s why I root for USMNT.